Your body itself can get in the way of merely living. Emotionally, you may be having a good day, but sheer fatigue prevents your visiting with a friend. Your faith might be strong and your gratitude growing, but it’s hard to tell for sure, because the illness (or medication for it) has messed up your brain chemistry, triggering confusion, depression, or irritability. When the body is sick, we are more aware than ever of our complete vulnerability.
How to relate to God at such a time? How to pray when staying alert—or even awake—can be a huge challenge? What to do when the body that is me is also the location of great pain and disorientation?
God probably expects me to cry out, as the psalmist did when suffering torments of every kind—sleepless nights, pain deep in the bone, loss of hope, intense fear. My only prayer might consist of moans and groans with a “please” thrown in. Can I even find the words for what this illness feels like? Can I trust my pain-fogged mind to put together a cohesive request? All I can do is be here.
If I follow the example of the psalmist, I will bring to mind God’s help in the past. This requires discipline, and sometimes it helps to have a friend along to aid in this practice of remembrance. Many of the psalms begin with cries of complaint and lament, only to move into remembrance of God’s care. By the end, the psalmist proclaims hope that God will again hear prayer and answer.
It’s not easy to find community when physically ill. Sometimes the situation requires isolation; at other times, people are hesitant to be in the presence of a situation they cannot fix. Our culture does not prepare us to be with people who suffer. It takes faith to sit with someone we cannot help in any tangible way. Perhaps we can help with a practical task or two, but faith allows us to be with the person while placing the burden for healing upon God.
If there is anything to gain from physical illness, it’s probably the sheer practice of living in the moment, of learning gratitude for every breath, movement, and conversation. When we are ill, we do not make grand plans; we are humbled down to getting through an afternoon or an hour. In this state, maybe we can recognize life in God that is outside of time and activity. Maybe we can grow into a quietness of spirit that does not rely on achievement for its sense of satisfaction.
Then, when healing comes in whatever form, we return to ordinary life, but we will never feel ordinary again.
Are you or is someone close to you suffering from cancer or another life-threatening illness? If so, how have you dealt with the suffering? How have you tried to make sense of it—or have you not tried to make sense of it yet?
What situations, if any, are beyond your own fixing? How could you abandon these situations to God’s care?